North Star

First Sunday of Advent
November 29, 2020
Mark 13: 24-37

That night after dinner we climbed the mountain not far from our camp. Well, “mountain” is generous. It was more a hill, but from its rocky outcropping you could take in the vast north Texas Brazos River valley. That night, our last night in camp, we were going to sleep out under the stars with just our sleeping bags and a simple campfire. It was dark, being way out in the middle of nowhere. I remember falling asleep and looking through a gap in the tree branches above me, I could see the Big Dipper. And I knew that if I could see the Big Dipper, I could find the North Star by extending a line from the two stars that make up the end of the dipper. Sure enough, there was the North Star, unchanging, through the gap in the tree branches as I fell asleep that night.

At some point I woke up in the middle of the night, long before dawn. It was one of those times you wake up and you’re not sure where you are or what time it is or which way you’re facing. That panic was made worse by the fact that I looked up and there no was no tent or ceiling above me, but just a little gap in the tree branches. I could still see the Big Dipper, but of course it had moved. In fact, all the stars had moved and nothing was in same place as it was when I fell asleep. What was going on? What was the world coming to? Had I moved in the middle of the night? Was I having trouble seeing? Was this a dream? In my sleep induced haze I finally remembered the lessons from my high school astronomy class. Yes, I took astronomy in high school, but you already knew I was a nerd. The stars had not moved, I had moved as the Earth had rotated. The Big Dipper had been over here when I fell asleep, but as the Earth had spun the Big Dipper was now over there. I did my quick check, I followed the two stars that make up the end of the Big Dipper and bingo! The North Star. In the same little gap in the trees. Everything had moved. Everything had changed. And yet, the North Star was unchanging. I could go back to sleep in peace.

Everything is moving. Everything is changing. Like waking up in a panic during the middle of the night, we look around and it seems that nothing is in its right place. Thanksgiving didn’t feel the same. We do not know what the end of the year will look like, much less next year. The specter of layoffs and unemployment hang over our heads. The number of people I know that are battling this pernicious disease climbs daily. Everything is moving. Everything is changing. In a panic, we look around at a world and everything is out of place.

As it is now, so it must have been back then. Jesus gives this dire warning to his disciples to stay awake, to keep watch, to be alert. The master of the house is coming but no one knows when – in the evening, at midnight, at cockcrow, or at dawn. Because everything is moving, everything is changing. Think of it, they have left homes and families and businesses and jobs to follow this wandering rabbi, believing, trusting that he was all they hoped he would be. But just a few days after these words to his disciples, he is betrayed by one of their own, arrested, crucified, and laid dead in a tomb. The disciples are driven from Jerusalem and scattered, like dust shaken out of a rug to the four corners of the earth. The Temple is desecrated and destroyed by the Romans just a few decades later. Can you imagine the disciples’ disillusionment and confusion? They thought they were following the Messiah, the Christ, the Son of God and yet everything was still moving and still changing. Had they awoken to the great truth of God or had they awoken to some nightmare?

And so it remains. Think of what has happened since those ancient times of our Lord. Empires have risen and fallen. Plagues have come and gone. Wealth has been created and turned to dust. Churches have been built and torn down. Men have walked on the Moon. We’ve created the ability to annihilate ourselves in an afternoon. We’ve seen planes fly into buildings. Everything is moving. Everything is changing. In a panic, we look around at a world and everything is out of place.

In a panic we wake up in the middle of the night, scrambling to get our bearings and the real danger, the real danger of course, is if we forget our astronomy lessons. If we forget that the Earth rotates. If we forget that all the stars move over the course of a night. If we forget how to use the Big Dipper to find our way to the North Star. If we forget that heaven and earth pass away, but the words of our Lord will never pass away. The real danger is if we forget to put our trust in a constant God in the midst of this constantly changing world.

This is the lesson of Advent. To keep awake, to stay alert, to not allow ourselves to grow weary by the changes and chances of this life. As Jesus warns his first disciples about the hard things to come, he says: “In those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.” Listen to this – Jesus is telling his followers that life will be hard. But even if it’s hard, there will be hope. “Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.”

So the first thing I have to say today is simple – do not lose heart. Do not be discouraged by all the ways the world changes and moves. Do not let your panic get the best of way. When you wake up and read the news and feel disoriented remember your lessons. Remember your prayers, and worship, and sacraments, and holy scriptures and they will point you back to the Almighty One who never changes. Grace, love, compassion, generosity – these are the things that are eternal from God and these are ways to find way your back even in the midst of these living nightmares. Advent is the time to wake up, as Jesus says, to rekindle our faith and to awaken our hope. Advent is not some feeble season to get all our shopping done and sign all our Christmas cards. Oh no – Advent is the time to fix our eyes on that which never changes so that we remain faithful to the last. “Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake” (Mark 13:37).

The second thing I want to say is about this pandemic itself. Rightly so, we give thanks to God for better treatments and for safe delivery of a vaccine in the not too distant future. In a sense, we’ve been in Advent since March, waiting, waiting for some good news. But with this good news just around the corner I’m already hearing about “when things go back to normal.” As if we could make the stars go back to where they were, as if we could make the Earth rotate the other way and go back in time. The world has changed. Things are different. And in many ways, there is no going back to the way it was. For this is now the way things are. Offices will never be the same. Entire industries have stopped and new ones have started. We have discovered how resilient we are, and that we can make meaningful connections through screens. We have seen how fragile our health care systems can be, how fragile our supply chains can be, how fragile our economy is. We have seen, all too clearly, that some of the lowest paid workers are the most important people in society because they stock the shelves and take away our trash. Much has been revealed about who we are and the world we live in. 

And so with Christian hope and Christian faith, we must never wish to simply go back to the way things were even after this has passed. This will be an opportunity to ask ourselves if “normal” back then was “right.” This is the time to repent, to renew ourselves for the work of the gospel at hand. In a sense, this pandemic has awakened us in the middle of the night. This has been the Advent call to prepare ourselves for Something New. Now is the time to reorient ourselves, to reorient our whole world around that North Star that never changes. This is the time to prepare ourselves for the master, because he will most definitely return. “What I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”

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